Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Fat of the Land

After the helicopter buzzed back to base, I got to thinking about what my upstairs neighbor, Suzuki-san, had said about old people foraging for mountain vegetables in the hills behind our apartment house. After hiking Shokanbetsu-dake, Ryan, Mark and I had feasted on warabi (fiddlehead ferns) and ainu negi (indian onion) but since then I hadn't searched locally for edible plants. The idea of foraging for my dinner was appealing for several reasons. Most importantly, what food I might find would be totally organic and probably delicious. Looking for vegetables provided a great excuse to wander around in the woods, there was something satisfying about the prospect of finding my food in the wild, and of course, everything lying around in the forest would be free for the taking. Groceries in Japan are expensive even though I don't buy meat, and saving $10 a week on the bill would give me an extra $50 a month to put into stocks...armed with a plastic bag I marched off into the hills.

The upper half of the ridge is choked with bamboo thickets that are a pain in the ass to plow through, but the lower half is forested with second-growth pines that block out enough sun to keep the underbrush managable. The ground is still wet this time of year from the snow melt, and a tremendous array of plants, shoots, ferns and flowers are making up for lost time after the long winter, jockeying for space and sunlight underneath the pines.

Looking around, I realized that there apart from a few fiddlehead ferns, already too big and hairy for eating, I didn't recognize any of the plants. There were some big leafy greens in the wettest areas that looked like skunk cabbage - edible, but not very appetizing. Smaller dark green shoots grew on the banks of a little stream. Thinking it might be a kind of watercress I popped some in my mouth. Not bad, but not watercress either. Too bitter.

Moving further up the ridge, adding some young warabi to my bag, I came across a reddish green stalk, about 30 cm tall, with new leaves sprouting from the top. It looked familiar...I'd seen it, or something like it, in the supermarket recently, but at $2 a stalk I hadn't bought any. I gave the stalk a yank, breaking it off on ground level. The inside of the root was white with streaks of green and it smelled good, vaguely sweet. Into the bag went the stalk. Moving up the ridge, I found more and more of the mysterious plants, along with tiny green bamboo shoots, tender when boiled. In less than half an hour, my bag was full.

Back home, I examined my haul. There were enough bamboo shoots and warabi for a small meal, but what really intrigued me were the stalks, which ranged from 25 to 50 cm in height, the largest about as big around as a banana at the base. They smelled good, and looked familiar, but I wanted to be sure one bite wouldn't send me off on a trip or, worse, condemn me to the shitter for the rest of the night. Taking a stalk with me, I walked outside, where Suzuki-san's wife was tending her flower pots.

"Excuse me," I said, presenting the plant in extended palms like an offering to a temple spirit, "What might this be?"

"Eeeeehhhhh?!" said Suzuki-san, sucking in her breath. "That's udo! It's delicious. See those little leaves - those are delicious made as tempura. As for the rest of it, it's best boiled and eaten with a vinegar-miso sauce. Where did you get that, anyway?"

" In the forest behind the house," I said. ($2 each, times about 30 stalks, found in about half an hour...) I grinned wider. "I'll give you some if you like."

"That's OK," said Suzuki-san, grinning up at me toothlessly from underneath her sun bonnet. "I can get those anytime myself this time of year."

My mental calculations of tremendous profit collapsed. But the udo was delicious.


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